It took the Boston Celtics the full 82 game season to secure home court advantage throughout the Eastern Conference playoffs and exactly two games to lose it. With their 111-97 loss at TD Garden on Tuesday night, the Celtics fell to 0-2 in their opening round playoff series against the Chicago Bulls. It marked only the second time a No1 seed has dropped their first two games against a No8 seed since the development of the current NBA playoff system.
Things felt a lot different for the Celtics just a week ago as they secured the best record in the Eastern Conference. With the accomplishment, one that looked to be a longshot just a few months earlier, Boston had cemented one of the fastest rebuilds in NBA history. They had seemingly doomed themselves to a long stretch of losing and draft-watching after first trading Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett to the Brooklyn Nets in 2013 and then shipping off Rajon Rondo to the Dallas Mavericks in 2014. Instead the emergence of point guard Isaiah Thomas – acquired from the Phoenix Suns for nearly nothing – the flourishing of unheralded players like Jae Crowder and Avery Bradley and the much-heralded skills of head coach Brad Stevens led to the a Celtics team that consistently out-played the sum of its parts.
In 2015, they surprised many by securing the No7 seed in the East, before unsurprisingly getting swept by the Cleveland Cavaliers. Last year they made the playoffs as the fifth seed, although they were again beaten in the first round, this time by the Atlanta Hawks. This year their 53-29 record was good enough for the top seed in the East and their opening round opponent was a beyond dysfunctional 41-41 Bulls team that looked like the weakest team in the entire field. It was the best possible outcome for Boston
Tragedy struck right before the start of the series when Thomas’s younger sister died in a car accident the day before Game 1. Obviously, given the circumstances, it’s difficult to blame the Celtics for playing out of sorts in that 106-102 loss, although Thomas himself put on a remarkable performance given the context, scoring a team high 33 points. To assume that the death of Thomas’s sister hasn’t affected the team would be to cast the players, as professional as they may be, as heartless numbers-generating automatons. Above and beyond anything else, no matter how poorly the Celtics perform throughout the rest of the playoffs, no one should criticize Thomas, who is battling through something no human being should ever be asked to play through.
However, the after-effects of this tragedy can’t explain just how poorly the rest of his team-mates have been playing. They gave up 20 offensive rebounds in Game 1, an astonishing lack of effort that left them rightfully embarrassed. A few days later, they somehow managed to play even worse, compounding mental mistake with mental mistake and playing such calamitous defense that they allowed the Bulls to shoot 56.8% in the second half. Bradley allegedly heard Rondo, who now plays for Chicago, comment that his old team “gave up.”
By the end of it, the Celtics were being booed by their own fans, and nobody could blame them for their reaction. The Celtics now have to play three of their next four games at Chicago’s United Center, should the series even last that long, Who knows, maybe after Tuesday’s debacle, that might be the best thing for them.
The historically terrible start would be less of an embarrassment for the top-seeded team if it weren’t for the fact that the Bulls came into the series as the team most likely to hear their own fans’ boos. The Bulls have been beyond dysfunctional most of the year as their “three alphas” of Jimmy Butler, Dwyane Wade and Rondo have underwhelmed for much of the regular season. Wade more often looking like his old self rather than his “old self,” Rondo has been getting the wrong kind of press for his off-the-court comments and it’s felt like Butler has been auditioning for a new team.
When the playoff match-ups were finalized, it was thought that the Celtics lucked out when the Bulls kept out the the Miami Heat, who had been making a case for being a much tougher opponent since the All-Star Break. It had seemed at the time the C’s had gotten the easiest possible road to the conference finals, but now it looks like they could be facing their third straight “one and done,” one that should lead to some difficult offseason questions.
It would do a lot of harm to the Celtics’ rebirth should the results of the Celtics’ still-impressive rebuild end up being three straight first-round playoff exits at the hands of underwhelming opponents. Already, Stevens has a 2-10 record in the playoffs, giving him the worst win record by a head coach in NBA history with a minimum of 10 games played in the postseason. That stat may or may not mean all that much in a vacuum, but it certainly doesn’t really help a team whose free agent sales pitch begins with “we have a genius head coach”. Experts who were praising Boston for keeping all their young talent and not going “all in” for a star player, reportedly Butler himself, at the trade deadline might be thinking differently now that the team is being schooled by Chicago’s Three Alphas – who looked so, so mismatched during the regular season – right when the games mean the most.
Before the postseason began, Celtics fans probably laughed off analysis that labeled their team as the worst No1 seed in NBA history. After the results of Games 1 and 2, and with an incredibly ignoble playoff exit looming, it’s starting to look like a label that could fit them all too well. Should the Bulls finish off the upset, it could have long-term consequences on a team that seemed on the verge of a breakthrough just a week ago.